Joe Nelson, Staff Writer
Posted: 06/18/2013 09:43:43 PM PDT

The tab to defend San Bernardino County against nine lawsuits opposing a pipeline project environmentalists say will drain a swath of the Mojave Desert of precious groundwater grew to $1.5 million Tuesday after county supervisors approved an increase in legal costs.

The board authorized increasing its contract with the Sacramento law firm Downey Brand LLP by $500,000 to fight the lawsuits, which allege the county violated state and federal environmental laws and San Bernardino County’s own Desert Groundwater Management Plan by approving the Cadiz pipeline project.

It brings the county’s legal cost thus far in fighting the lawsuits from $949,332 to $1.5 million.

Nearly a dozen lawsuits have been filed since the project was approved last October. Two lawsuits have been dismissed since then by judges in state and federal courts.

Los Angeles-based Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District in Rancho Santa Margarita have teamed to pump groundwater from aquifers near the Mojave National Preserve over a 50-year period. The water would be diverted via a 43-mile pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct and stored, then sold to residents and businesses in south Orange County, and Rancho Santa Margarita.

The pipeline has yet to be built and would be constructed along an old railroad right of way.

“There’s a lot of concern on the local level about this project, and I hope the county is going to be reimbursed for these costs because it’s sad to think the county is actually spending a half a million dollars more of taxpayer money to give our water away,” said David Lamfrom, California Desert Senior Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, one of the agencies that has sued the county over the project.

Cadiz owns 45,000 acres in eastern San Bernardino County, most of which overlies the Cadiz and Bristol dry lake beds comprising the Fenner Valley aquifer system south of the Mojave National Preserve and northeast of Twentynine Palms. Cadiz and the Santa Margarita Water District plan to pump 50,000 acre feet of groundwater from the aquifers annually.

Delaware Tetra Technologies, a company that operates a brine mine in the Fenner Valley and depends on groundwater from the Bristol and Cadiz dry lake beds for its operations, argued in its lawsuit that the pipeline project would force the closure of its mine. Other organizations suing the county include the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Audubon Society and Sierra Club, and the International Union of North America Local Union No. 783.

Plaintiffs allege the county has relinquished most of the project’s oversight to Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District.

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